On March 27, Vice President Joe Biden began a three-day tour to Latin America to attend a high level consultation session for the Summit of the Americas, scheduled for mid-April in Trinidad and Tobago. He met in Chile with President Michelle Bachelet and Presidents from Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay, and the Prime Ministers of Norway and the United Kingdom.
Biden then went to Costa Rica. Hosted by President Oscar Arias, and surrounded by other Central American leaders in San Jose, Biden listened, a trait not usually associated with the verbose former Senator – nor with other US officials – as they enunciated the pressing problems of the region. Then he ignored the words he heard about ending the US blockade of Cuba So much for listening!
Biden returned, however, without getting Nixonized. In May 1958, Vice President Richard M. Nixon and his wife Pat began their eight-nation tour in Lima, Peru. Newsreel film showed Nixon greeting Peruvian crowds who answered with boos and hisses. Young Peruvians shoved the VP and his wife and then spat on him. The New York Times huffily described the hostility as simply “communist inspired.”
A week later, the Nixons landed in Caracas. An official band played the “Star-Spangled Banner” and a 21-gun salute exploded. But the crowd greeted the Nixons with a white sheet: “Get out, Nixon!” The confused VP descended into the crowd, where he got spat on again.
Inside the limo, the Nixons wiped spittle from their faces. Other angry Venezuelans hurled rocks at their chauffeur-driven car. An hour later, the Nixon convoy slowed in the Caracas traffic. Hundreds of demonstrators attacked the VIP caravan ripping up US and Venezuelan flags draped on the limo. Infuriated men pounded the car doors with lead pipes; others threw stones. The safety-plated glass shattered. One shard hit Nixon in the face. It was quickly removed.
The Venezuelan escort police seemed reluctant to confront enraged civilians. They had been victims of vengeful mobs earlier in the year when citizens rioted and overthrew pro-US dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez. Uniformed police dragged away a student lying in front of the car. But they didn’t engage a group trying to overturn Nixon’s auto. The driver sped up and escaped.
Nixon planned to lay a wreath at Simon Bolivar’s tomb. But more protesters awaited him. Time (May 26, 1958) estimated that “3,000 rioters, mostly high school students,” awaited him.
US Embassy officials phoned President Eisenhower to report the incidents. Ike dispatched a military unit to rescue the Nixons. The ruling military junta in Caracas that replaced Pérez Jiménez sent soldiers to protect the American VIPs. The next day, military squads escorted Dick and Pat to the airport in a bulletproof limousine.
Provisional President Rear Admiral Wolfgang Larrazabal described the incidents as “very sad.”
Sad? Currently, most Latin Americans feel relieved. In recent decades, they have gotten the proverbial US monkey off their backs. US officials continue to tell people “down there” how to run their governments and their economies, but they can’t easily bring in troops or CIA destabilizers. Bolivia and Ecuador ousted several US “diplomats” and terminated Washington’s costly and stupid “drug war” as well.
In 1958, however, Ivy Leaguers at State and CIA couldn’t conceive of Latin Americans feeling outrage at imperial US behavior. In Washington, under the tutelage of General Hubris, few considered that installing brutal dictators throughout the lower hemisphere might have negative repercussions, even though clear signals should have prepared the foreign policy nomenklatura. Seven months later, in January 1959, official policy mavens gasped in surprise again when Cubans overthrew another US-backed dictator.
This event occurred while the apocryphal General Hubris had filled his chest, in the lecture words of my late professor, William Appleman Williams, with “visions of omnipotence.” After all, the United States possessed a mammoth economy, super technology and nuclear pre-eminence.
For more than a century, Washington chose to intervene militarily and then behaved as if its aggressive acts showed concern for the welfare of those lesser peoples. In 1980, former Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency under Carter, Paul Warnke, described to me official attitudes after World War II. “Latin Americans should be grateful. We allowed them to have UN seats. The Monroe Doctrine and the Roosevelt Corollary became truisms. Nobody questioned them. It was assumed that we controlled the area forever.”
Latin Americans learned, however, that the Washington policy brain had become frozen. In the name of “containing” Soviet expansion and protecting democracy, the United States backed dictators and their militaries – just as they did before the Cold War.
Kennedy’s bright 1961 Alliance for Progress rhetoric paled before his and his successors’ far larger counterinsurgency budget. Democracy got upstaged by military and the police, while the CIA resumed its destabilization of disobedient governments (Brazil in 1964, Dominican Republic in 1965, Chile from 1970-3) and tried hundreds of times to assassinate Fidel Castro.
In 1991, the Cold War ended. The “evil empire” imploded, showing, like the fabled Emperor, that it had no clothes. Latin Americans logically awaited Washington’s policy changes – in vain. The US aura of supremacy continued to prevail. By 2001, Neocons began to impose with presidential blessing their short sighted vision of long term US interests. The invasion of Iraq, they convinced Bush, would begin the next phase of the American Century. As cruel facts demonstrated after US forces still occupy Afghanistan and Iraq, US policy around the world makes no sense.
Mythical General Hubris, still informally in charge of official thinking, clung to outdated strategies — like anti-Castroism. The slippery slide of pro-US dictators receded under US-dominated free trade. However, the façade of Latin American democracy – political parties, elections, multiple sources of media – could not mask the depths of poverty and misery throughout the area.
By the late 1990s, voters responded to their conditions. Most of the region’s nations elected governments critical of US policy, ranging from openly pro-Fidel Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia to Presidents who express admiration but don’t take direct advice from Cuba’s former President. (Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Paraguay, Guatemala, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Panama and El Salvador)
Biden reiterated a continuation of “punish Cuba” policy. All Latin Americans sneered. The United States has lost Latin America. In the post World War II era, critics of President Truman charged he had “lost China,” referring to his refusal to intervene military in the civil war won by the Communists in 1949. In fact, the United States never had China to lose. But Washington did dominate Latin America for a century. And it lost control of most of its countries. In the 1960s, Washington pressured Latin American leaders to break with Cuba. In 2009, those links have been reestablished.
The new political generation in the region reasons with President Obama to drop the “destroy Cuba” policies. Instead, Latin American Presidents appeal to Obama for focus on issues that scream for solutions: poverty, crime and drug trafficking and immigration. Cuba did not cause these issues. US policy, however, facilitated a vast corporate rip off of Latin American wealth.
US free trade policy led to an increase in poverty. The drug war fostered more violent crime in several Latin American nations and poisoned good agricultural land under the pretext of ridding it of coca and opium poppies.
Drug demand comes mostly from the United States, which has done nothing to reduce the number of its addicts. Free trade formulas led Argentina to bankruptcy. Other nations stopped growing traditional crops that fed their people. Costa Rican farmers grow macadamia nuts and flowers, not corn. For five hundred years, Mexico was self sufficient in corn. Now, she imports more US corn than any other nation. Thank you, NAFTA!
Brazil has become a power, one that merits a seat at the world table – especially the areas of financial collapse and global warming. Obama and Biden could announce a new partnership and permanently retire General Hubris.
Obama faces a strange problem. In the midst of financial collapse, will he also concede the loss of US political power? In 1897, Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebrated an empire that spanned the world, including highly populated India and China (an informal colony). The grandfather of General Hubris lived in London. God, he believed, had blessed the Brits with a perpetual lease for the universe.
By 1948, that lease had dwindled to a few remaining minor colonies. In 1956, as British warships sailed for the Suez Canal intent on reestablishing their Middle Eastern power, President Eisenhower ordered them to stop. They obeyed. In 2001, Prime Minister Tony Blair’s tried to kiss George W. Bush’s ass, perhaps to reignite some fading visions of past imperial glories.
Hopefully, someone in Washington will scream as Ike did to the British: “Wake Up! It’s over.” The American Century lasted 60 years. Biden could have helped redefine US relations – partnership, not domination — with Latin America. What a relief that would have been – for almost everyone.